26 July ~ The most interesting novelty at the Copa America – which concluded on Sunday with Uruguay beating Paraguay 3-0 in a surprise final pairing – was not a swing in the balance of power of South American football, but a peek at the way football will be mostly watched in the coming years. All 26 games were streamed live for free on YouTube to more than 50 countries (but not the UK or Ireland) at dedicated channel YouTube.com/copaamerica. The quality of the stream was excellent in the games I watched on my laptop, whether in small window or full-screen mode.
It never cut out, unlike (or so I've been told) what can happen when watching games on other less legal sites. The commentary, from Tony Jones and Kevin Gallacher in the English version, and also available in both Spanish and Argentinian Spanish, was knowledgeable and understated.
Social media link-ups via Facebook and Twitter meant viewers could interact and communicate with friends or followers during the games. They could also add their comments on Luis Suarez’s finishing or Neymar’s haircut in a box under the screen. Or click to buy official merchandise should they so wish. You could also see live match stats or scroll down for the draw/fixtures bracket.
At half-time there were no ads or talking heads, just highlights of the previous action or of recent games. During the final they showed the top ten goals of the competition and then the five worst misses. Always up on the channel are links to full coverage or highlights of completed games, action packages from each team across the whole tournament and clips from previous Copa America tournaments.
The Copa was YouTube’s biggest foray into live sports broadcasting to date, but not its first move in the area. Live action from the Indian Premier League Twenty20 cricket competition was streamed last year. In early July, the International Paralympic Committee Swimming European Championships went out live at YouTube.com/paralympicsporttv. Schalke’s penalty shoot-out win over Dortmund in last Saturday’s German Super Cup was streamed live at YouTube.com/bundesliga.
Coverage of more and bigger events, available in more countries, seems likely. In February, Gautam Anand, Google’s director of content partnerships for Asia-Pacific, told Bloomberg: “It is fair to say that there will be a lot more appealing sports content you’ll see on YouTube. We have ongoing conversations with pretty much everyone.”
It is hard to know yet whether YouTube will emerge as a competitor for the likes of Sky, Canal Plus and ESPN or offer a complementary online service. The Copa America and German game were also available on traditional TV. However, with the online and television “spaces” likely to continue to merge in the coming years, this month’s experiments could be the first sign of a serious attempt at moving live football from the TV to the web. YouTube, owned by cash-rich Google, has the financial muscle to rival anyone in an auction for any event.
According to stats on the bottom of the page, the Copa channel racked up over ten million unique views and just under 100,000 signed-up subscribers over the course of the competition. Rival broadcasters and internet companies have presumably been keeping an eye on the site too. The lesson they will have taken from this year’s Copa America was not that Lionel Messi can’t play without Xavi or that Brazil will flop as 2014 World Cup hosts, but that a big shake-up is coming in the way sports rights are sold and fans watch football at home. Dermot Corrigan